As a child of the 1980s, I have many amazing, formative memories — Transformers, He-Man, the rise of MTV, the first flight of the Challenger space shuttle … and, of course, the glorious reign of the epic mullet! That said, I must admit that few experiences stand out as vividly as the frustrating summer that I spent experimenting, however fruitlessly, with the iconic “toy” chemistry set.
As unlikely as it may seem, I owe my short-lived stint as an amateur chemist not to the inspiration of a science teacher, but to Michael “The Dude” Dudikoff, star of the 1985 action film American Ninja. After 95 minutes of uninterrupted martial-arts mayhem, I left the theatrical premier determined to assemble my arsenal and begin my ninja training. Unfortunately, the smoke-bomb aisle at the Kmart in rural Conroe, TX, proved slightly more elusive than the 15th-century Japanese shadow warriors whose ancient skills and techniques the movie’s heroes supposedly possessed.
Luckily, if I learned one thing from The Dude, it was perseverance — a ninja never quits. So, with the help of my friend Adam and his seldom-used chemistry set, I began experimenting with every combination of chemicals that we could pilfer from the neighborhood. Of the many concoctions formulated that summer, the closest we came to a functional smoke bomb was a pungent mixture that filled the room with the smell of rancid gym shoes and left psychedelic pink spots wherever it splashed on Adam’s carpet.
When the fall semester rolled around, we resigned our mission and tossed the chemistry set back in the closet. Ninja smoke bombs notwithstanding, this story likely resonates with the experience many others from my generation who became fascinated with the exploratory scientific potential of the chemistry set, only to lose interest due to a lack of guidance, resources, and results. Truth be told, I may well have forgotten the ordeal altogether, had I not been presented with an intriguing question: Is drone technology the “chemistry set” of this generation?
My initial impulse was to embrace the comparison. Certainly, there are distinct points of commonality. Most notably, drones (and robotic technology more generally) provide both an impetus for scientific investigation and a vehicle through which to practice applied science. In addition, the 18th-century precursor to the children’s chemistry set was intended for use by adults, much as drone technology was initially oriented toward professional use and has now expanded to the consumer and youth markets. Arguably, drones have also inspired the same movement in do-it-yourself education culture that we attribute, however nostalgically, to the chemistry set popular from the 1950s to the ’90s.
Upon deeper reflection, however, it occurs to me that there is a profound divide between the two cultural phenomena. By contrast to the chemistry set of my youth, drones offer an unprecedented opportunity for people of all ages to embark on a journey of intellectual discovery and growth ― an endeavor that is no longer obstructed by the informational and technological limitations of the 20th century. In part, this is owed to the unique social and technological intersections that gave rise to the drone technology of today. More specifically, the drone revolution is the result of a distinct convergence of factors, including the advent of the internet, the popularity of “co-op” action games and multiplayer online RPGs, the spread of social media, and the advances in the computer software and hardware solutions that support these technological applications.
I addressed this issue recently during a question-and-answer session with the parents of the middle-school students who attended my 2016 Rice Drone Camp at Rice University. One father asked, “Why do you think drones have become so popular over the past few years?” In response, I outlined a set of key factors that I recognize as essential to the rise of what I refer to as the Era of the Drone. Most obviously, the internet is a total game-changer. We now have instant access to the informational resources, instruction, and tutorials necessary to jump headlong into complex technical projects with the support of web-based guided learning ― this was not the case with the chemistry set. On a related note, the reach of social media has utterly transformed our sense of community, engendering an expansive network of virtual relationships that provide both encouragement and gratification for those interested in a niche topic.
Another point relates to the rise of online gaming; specifically, the style of team-based, cooperative gameplay that rose to popularity through such games as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, and continues to evolve in the innovative gameplay of more recent titles, including Fable Legends and League of Legends. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these games, the relevant aspect is the focus on teamwork and differentiation of skills — topics I focus on heavily in the K-12 outreach programs and college-level engineering leadership courses that I teach.
In these types of co-op games, players are encouraged to embrace a personalized approach to problem-solving, assess and utilize individual strengths and aptitudes, develop a localized area of expertise, delegate tasks to team members, and break down complex problems (e.g., a mission or boss fight) into achievable benchmarks. As a result, the current generation of gamers has been acculturated, via Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1944) notion of reification (the process of making something abstract real) through play, into the mindset of applied engineering and project-based design.
I would be remiss if I did not also highlight the underlying advances in computer technology that have made the aforementioned applications possible. A variety of recent improvements in automated systems, machine learning protocols, cloud-based storage and data aggregation systems, and real-time rendering of data/media/visualizations have dramatically enhanced the ease of entry for those interested in robotics, coding, hardware development, or other aspects of drone-related technologies. Supplemented by a network of online communities, readily available informational resources, and a game-based socialization into best practices in teamwork and cooperative problem solving, these advances in computer technology set the stage for a new paradigm in DIY education and maker culture.
As a final note, I must point out that engineering is inherently interdisciplinary, and complex projects require a diverse and well-integrated team. By contrast to the chemistry set, which serves a relatively singular purpose, the possibilities that arise from drone technology are virtually unlimited. Those who lose interest in aerial robotics and UAV/UAS technology may transition into any number of related disciplinary fields ― mechanical engineering, material sciences, computer science, electrical engineering, social science research, aviation, and on and on.
Herein lies the key distinction between the chemistry set of old and the drone revolution of today. The generative value of drone technology is not constrained to a single application; rather drones serve as a gateway to a diverse and limitless array of intellectual explorations. In the spirit of educational nostalgia, I will close with an analogy that might be found on an SAT exam: The chemistry set is to drone technology as the rotary telephone is to the internet.
Note: A version of this essay appears in the November/December 2016 issue of Drone360.
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